Dissent and nationalism in the Baltic States: the Baltic Way (E. Bernini)


ElenaThe year was 1989, August was the month. The months to come will be always remembered for the fall of the Berlin Wall, but this August episode, which is less known, is not less pivotal for the future of Europe as a whole. I am referring to the event remembered as “the human chain”, which took place across the three Baltic States: from Estonia to Latvia to Lithuania. The human chain was a pacific protest involving about two million people[1] holding one another’s hands in a seemingly never ending line, whose aim was to gain freedom and express dissent from the USSR.

The thesis of my paper is that this episode was a successful example of claiming freedom of conscience by the joined efforts of three small countries which were not allowed to express dissent during the USSR domination. Also almost a unique case of successful dissent within the Soviet Union, especially the idea of singing as a form of resistance will result in a passive civil resistance movement, called the “Singing Revolution”. In this regard, will also be analyzed the unique features of Baltic nationalism and dissent as well as the powerful symbolism behind the “Baltic Way”. I see the Baltic Way as a structural precondition of the Berlin Wall fall: the demonstrations and protests highlighted the internal crisis and weaknesses that led the USSR to a point of no return.

To conclude, considering a geopolitcs level, the paper will focus on some of the present consequences and challenges that derive from the fact that the Baltic States are the only previous Soviet Republics that have entered the European Union and are also members of NATO.

Background: Molotov Ribbentrop Pact

The three Baltic nations are unique. In terms of geography, history, culture and religion, they are the most Western of the former Soviet Republics. What also particularly intrigued me was that the Baltic States are unique as they have experimented with two totalitarian regimes along the 20th century, namely Nazism and the Soviet Union regime. The Soviet domination in particular, was long but not continuous. After being part of the Russian Empire in the 19th century, in the aftermath of WWI the Baltic States became independent in 1920[2]. However, their independence was taken away 29 years later. In 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact, a pact of non- aggression and with a secret protocol, aiming at dividing spheres of influence. It is common knowledge that after this Pact Hitler invaded Poland, igniting WWII. What perhaps is less remembered is that under this secret protocol Stalin’s Red Army occupied the Baltic States as well as parts of Romania and East Poland. The immediate consequence was the establishment of pro-Soviet governments: the following elections were a farce and the new parliaments “decided” to join the Soviet Union. Soon after, in June 1941, Hitler, with the Operation Barbarossa, occupied the three Baltic States that had hoped in vain for a restoration of their independence. After 1944, the Soviets reoccupied the countries giving origin to sovietization.

Sovietization: the repression of Baltic Dissent and Nationalism?

The Socialist planned economy, while trying to eliminate the inefficiencies of capitalism with its uncertainties of the free market trade with an ex ante coordination, ends up by “being the biggest source of perverse effects”[3], the opposite of the sought after goals. Indeed, Stalin not only forced the collectivization of private land ownership, the creation of state owned industries and the sovietization of collective farms (kolkhoz), but also imposed the Russian language in 1944. The aim was to undermine the sense of Baltic identity: a language is a crucial element to maintain or create national unity. During the Italian “Risorgimento”, with the nation and state building process, in the 1850’s, a shared language was on top of the agenda of the Italian politicians.

Mass deportations were planned by the Kremlin soon after the invasion and started in 1941[4]. In Latvia, for instance, “in the night between 13 and 14 June, about 15,500 Latvian residents (…) were arrested without a court order to be deported to distant regions in the Soviet Union”[5]; they continued in 1949. “This deportation of more than 42,000 people was carried out to end the resistance to collectivisation of the farms and at the same time to get rid of the supporters of national partisans”[6] or those accused of being rich farmers (kulaki). Similarly, in Estonia the first deportation raid started on the night of June 13-14. “According to the order, issued on June 13 from Moscow, over 10,000 people were deported from Estonia during 14-17 June 1941”[7]. A similar scenario occured in Lithuania where “more than 280,000 people were deported from Lithuania in 1940–1953”. June 14 has become the “Day of Mourning and Hope” to remember the victims.

I wondered how the Baltic States can have such strong nationalism despite the long Soviet domination, despite the harsh policy of sovietization oriented to repress any form of nationalism.

I found an answer in the book The Baltic States from the Soviet Union to the European Union: Identity, Discourse and Power in the Post-Communist Transition of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania by Richard Mole. “While Soviet nationality policy did succeed in repressing demonstrations of nationality in the Baltic Republics, it failed to stop the inhabitants from identifying as Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian” (….) “the continued feeling of injustice at having been annexed by the USSR and having suffered deportations, purges, collectivization, economic stagnation, environmental pollution, created a ‘political field leading to nationalism’ ”[8] . And also “Nothing serves to unite and mobilize a people as memory of a shared victory, or collective suffering”[9]. Both elements can be found in the history of the Baltic States. Victory against the Russian Bolsheviks after WWI when they gained independence. Suffering, after the mass deportations”.[10]

23 August 1989: the Baltic Way

An episode that epitomizes the dissent from the Soviet Union and nationalistic aspirations was the Baltic way. It was a human chain, formed by a line of about two million people holding hands stretching for 600 km from Vilnius to Tallin. “According to Reuters and the Associated Press, one in three inhabitants of all Baltic States took part in the action” [11]. It took place on 23 August, on the 50th anniversary of the day when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed. It was organized by the Baltic pro-independence movements: Rahvarinne of Estonia, the Tautas fronte of Latvia, and Sąjūdis of Lithuania[12]. Some of the prominent leaders were Dainis Ivāns, Edgar Savisaar, Vytautas Landsbergis, Ivars Godmanis, Sandra Kalniete, Marju Lauristin, Lennart Meri and Kazimira Prunskiene. In particular, Sandra Kalniete, now Member of the European Parliament, claimed that the “Baltic Question” was not limited to political and diplomatic circles.[13] To tackle the challenge of organising such a vast demonstration, the radio assumed the function of coordinating the participants[14].

The Baltic Way was the climax of the passive civil resistance movement called “Singing Revolution” that takes its name after defying the Soviet Union regime by singing Baltic patriotic songs. “The idea of singing as a form of resistance has a long history in the Baltics, dating back to nineteenth century choirs meeting and performing in defiance of the Tsar”[15]. . After the Soviet occupation “Baltic countries (…) were denied freedom of speech, but choirs still found ways to rebel through song. Choir festivals, held every five years, would feature songs of loyalty to the Soviet Union, but after the official program the choir would often perform a familiar song—a folk song, for example—that despite neutral content would become a song of resistance, with the enormous audience singing along.”[16]

The book analyzing this phenomenon is The Power of Song: Nonviolent Nation Culture in the Baltic Singing by Guntis Šmidchens. He writes “Just singing non-Soviet songs—they weren’t anti-Soviet—was seen as an act of resistance (…)The Soviets quickly recognized such songs as national anthems and would ban them. The people who organized the festivals were sometimes sent to Siberia. So the Singing Revolution, the model for how to organize a resistance, was already there at these festivals.”[17]

The Baltic Way had an impact on the media due to its powerful symbolism. At first sight it would seem that it has same purpose of a wall of blocking something. The human chain, however, can be seen as the opposite image of a concrete wall, as it conveys a sense of solidarity. Also a recent episode was inspired by the Baltic human chain, even if the end was very different: on 21 February in Oslo a human chain of Muslims joined together to protect a Sinagogue.

The successful outcome of the Baltic aspirations to independence highlighted the internal weaknesses and crisis that the USSR was going through during the 80’s and led to its collapse in 1991. It paved the way to other Soviet Republics’ nationalistic claims but also of some Warsaw Pact’s countries . Mikhail Gorbachev in an attempt of healing the system embarked on reforms: perestrojka (reconstruction), glasnost (transparency), introduction of elements of market economy, some limited freedom of speech and decentralization. This latter allowed the Soviet Republics more powers and decision-making, but it also resulted in galvanizing and making more tangible the Baltic hopes for independence

I argue that Baltic nationalism was not chauvinistic, an aggressive type of nationalism that Fichte theorized and that would drive the formation of Hitler’s Reich, or Italy’s Fascism. Rather, Baltic nationalism was a genuine and positive one. It was a strive for self-determination, the right that was taken away with the Molotov- Ribbentrop Pact. Indeed, when in 1990 all three states became independent once again, they asserted that they were simply restoring their sovereignty which had been suspended during the previous fifty years of Soviet rule. Moreover, I believe that Baltic nationalism indirectly led to the collapse of the Iron curtain, as after the independence of the Baltic States what were considered the Eastern block and the Western block of the Iron Curtain were redefined.

Challenges posed to Baltic nationalism today

The last part of this paper is focused on the importance of the consequences that Baltic States nationalism and dissent still have nowadays in terms of military security issues. Indeed, the Baltic States are the only previous Soviet Republics which have entered the EU and especially NATO in 2004. Thus it is understandable that these are areas of immense strategic importance.

Since the annexation of Crimea to the Russian Federation occurred in March 2015, the Baltic States have feared a similar fate. As a matter of fact, in all the three states reside vast communities of Russian speakers and ethnic Russian minorities. In particular, Latvia “(has) one of the largest minorities of Russian speakers in any European state and the Kremlin has long accused it of suppressing the rights of its Russian speakers – some 300,000 of whom are officially considered stateless, and thus may neither vote nor hold government positions.”[18] Moreover, the region of Kaliningrad, which is a Russian enclave, could be used as a staging ground for further Russian military incursions into Europe.

The growing concern over Russian interference is expressed in measures taken recently in the Baltic States. For instance, military conscription will be reintroduced from September 2015 in Lithuania after being abolished in 2008[19]. May this be the return of the Iron Curtain?

[1] “The Baltic Way. Accessed April 17, 2015. See <http://www.thebalticway.eu/en/history&gt;.

[2] For further analysis see Richard Mole, The Baltic States from the Soviet Union to the European Union: Identity, Discourse and Power in the Post-Communist Transition of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. London and New York: Routledge, 2012.

[3] Leonardo Parri. I dilemmi dell’azione sociale. Carocci editore, Rome 2004, 94.

[4] “Soviet Mass Deportations from Latvia.” – MFA of Latvia. Accessed May 17, 2015. See <http://www.mfa.gov.lv/en/policy/information-on-the-history-of-latvia/briefing-papers-of-the-museum-of-the- occupation-of-latvia/soviet-mass-deportations-from-latvia> .

[5] Ibidem.

[6] Ibidem.

[7] “Estonia Remembers the Soviet Deportations.” Estonian World RSS. June 14, 2015. Accessed July 17, 2015. See <http://estonianworld.com/life/estonia-remembers-the-soviet-deportations/&gt;

[8] Richard Mole, The Baltic States from the Soviet Union to the European Union: Identity, Discourse and Power in the Post-Communist Transition of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), position 868- Chapter one (Kindle edition).

[9] Ibidem.

[10] Ibidem.

[11] “The Baltic Way. The Day Holding Hands Changed History.” Accessed April 17, 2015. See <http://www.latvia.eu/sites/default/files/media/faktu_lapa_baltijas_cels_www.pdf&gt;.

[12] Ibidem.

[13] Ibidem.

[14] Ibidem.

[15] “When Songs Trumped Rifles.” College of Arts and Sciences. February 23, 2015. Accessed May 17, 2015. See <http://artsci.washington.edu/news/2013-12/when-songs-trumped-rifles&gt;.

[16] Ibidem.

[17] Ibidem.

[18] “Ukraine Crisis: Inhabitants of the Baltic States Fear That They Will Be next in the Firing-line.” The Independent. February 19, 2015. Accessed April 17, 2015. See <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/ukraine-crisis- inhabitants-of-the-baltic-states-fear-that-they-will-be-next-in-the-firingline-10058085.html >.

[19] “La Crisi Ucraina Spaventa I Paesi Baltici: Nervi Tesi Tra I Vicini Della Russia.” Il Sole 24 ORE. February 25, 2015. Accessed July 17, 2015. See <http://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/mondo/2015-02-25/l-ucraina-spaventa-paesi-baltici- nervi-tesi-i-vicini-russia—151140.shtml?uuid=ABGDAU0C> .



Leonardo Parri, I dilemmi dell’azione sociale. Carocci editore: Rome, 2004.

Richard Mole, The Baltic States from the Soviet Union to the European Union: Identity, Discourse and Power in the Post-Communist Transition of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. London and New York: Routledge, 2012.

Online resources


http://www.mfa.gov.lv/en/policy/information-on-the-history-of-latvia/briefing-papers-of-the- museum-of-the-occupation-of-latvia/soviet-mass-deportations-from-latvia http://estonianworld.com/life/estonia-remembers-the-soviet-deportations http://www.latvia.eu/sites/default/files/media/faktu_lapa_baltijas_cels_www.pdf http://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/mondo/2015-02-25/l-ucraina-spaventa-paesi-baltici-nervi-tesi-i- vicini-russia—151140.shtml?uuid=ABGDAU0C http://artsci.washington.edu/news/2013-12/when-songs-trumped-rifles